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But paying for a governor's race is chump change compared to the high finance of a national presidential campaign. Pawlenty will have to become a skilled national fundraiser if he wants to play.
In 2008, Obama raised $745 million, John McCain $370 million, Huckabee a measly $16 million. "That's one reason Huckabee fell out of the race—he was really underfunded compared to McCain," Schier says.
Pawlenty will also need to impress an A-team of national strategists. Plenty of them are sniffing around for the next hot candidate, and Romney has already snapped up some of the most talented operatives.
"What's going to be critical for his success is having people in those early states of Iowa and New Hampshire who really know the political culture and the key players in those states, because they continue to be make-or-break for a candidate," says Chris Georgacas, the former chairman of the state Republican Party.
ON JUNE 16, LESS THAN TWO weeks after announcing he would not seek a third term, Pawlenty took the podium at the Governor's Reception Room again, with more big news for the state. He would single-handedly close a $2.7 billion budget gap through a process known as unallotment—rescinding money that has already been appropriated.
Before a single critic could squawk, the governor fired a preemptive strike: "They need to get their head out of the clouds and get into the real economy and economic circumstances that is the worst economic crisis since World War II."
Yet the counterarguments quickly piled up: Unallotment would mean job cuts and fewer government services. DFL legislators said Pawlenty was acting like an emperor. Cities threatened to sue. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak criticized Pawlenty's unspoken ambitions. "It's time for the governor to stop throwing bombs in and out of visits to primary states," Rybak said.
Unallotment may be unpopular with state DFLers, but it could play incredibly well on the national stage—especially if Obama's economic stimulus doesn't create job growth. The GOP is rediscovering its roots as a party of limited government and less spending, says Vin Weber, former U.S. congressman and omnipresent force in conservative politics. "Republicans are looking at trillions of dollars of new spending and sort of recoiling in horror," Weber says.
If he finishes his term without tanking the state economy, Pawlenty could have a solid "no new taxes" claim.
He's already taking Obama head-on. On June 28, Pawlenty knocked Obama's proposal for universal health coverage on national television.
"The president said not long ago in an interview, quote-unquote, 'We are out of money,'" Pawlenty told CNN's John King. "With all due respect Mr. President, if we're out of money, quit spending it."
AT ABOUT 7:30 A.M. ON THE LAST Friday of August 2008, John McCain called Pawlenty on the telephone. It was just a few days before the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
McCain confirmed what the Minnesota governor had already surmised: Pawlenty had been passed over as McCain's running mate.
Publicly, at least, Pawlenty displayed no heartbreak. He repeatedly maintained that he was honored to even be considered. At his speech on the last night of the RNC, Pawlenty even plugged the ticket with his own signature catchphrase: "John McCain and Sarah Palin connect with Sam's Club voters. They get it."
What must have, on some level, been a disappointment to Pawlenty may turn out to be his greatest advantage in 2012. He's not tainted with failure. "He's a fresh face," Jacobs says.
Plus, while Palin was a darling of the Religious Right, Pawlenty is likely to draw a wider range of voters.
"If Republicans are serious about getting the White House back, they have to nominate somebody who could appeal to a broader electorate," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and author of The Year of Obama. "Pawlenty is one of the few Republicans who fits that mold."
Pawlenty's outsider status plays well with his message of new ideas in the Grand Old Party. "I think he needs to spend some time traveling around the country on an issues basis—not just his record on fiscals—energy and environment and health care and education," Weber says. "Republicans are going to want a candidate who can connect with people on that level."
Which will mean distinguishing himself from the man who brought him to the national dance. "Obviously, we're not going to beat President Obama with another John McCain," Meeks says.
IT WAS THE OPENING WEEKEND OF fishing season last year—Friday, May 9, 2008—when Pawlenty decided to crack a joke about his wife.
"I have a wife who genuinely loves to fish. I mean, she will take the lead and ask me to go out fishing, and joyfully comes here," the governor told WCCO-AM radio host Mike Max. "She loves football, she'll go to hockey games, and, I jokingly say, 'Now, if I could only get her to have sex with me.'"